Oncology Nurse Career Guide

    July 24, 2017
    Patient getting scanned at a hospital

    Oncology nurses care for people of all ages who are diagnosed with cancer. Oncology is a challenging field in which nurses support patients, families, and caregivers through the stress of diagnosis and treatment, and the anxiety of many uncertainties brought on by the disease, including facing mortality. 

    Find Nursing Programs

    Part OneWhat Is An Oncology Nurse?

    The oncology field today is different than in the early days of cancer treatment, with many more treatment options, better pain control, and reduced treatment side effects. The science is dynamic and continually evolving, with many new therapies on the horizon. Many people are making the transition from cancer patient to cancer survivor. In short, there is often hope for recovery, or for living with the disease. Oncology nurses have important roles to play all along the cancer care continuum.

    As an oncology nurse, you’ll be on a path of career-long learning that offers challenges, financial rewards, and professional growth. If you have a desire to get to know patients and the nuances of their needs and care, oncology nursing may be a good career choice. You’ll often have the chance to develop deep relationships with people as you care for them throughout their cancer journey.

    Part TwoWhat is the salary range for oncology nurses?

    As with nursing in general, your salary as an oncology nurse will depend on your level of education, years of experience, size of employer, and where you live and work. In May 20196 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the mean annual income for registered nurses as $73,300, with a range from $52,080 to $111,220 per year, though conditions vary based on area. 

    Pay differentials can boost nursing salaries. These differentials are typically added to your base hourly rate for evening or night shifts, charge duties, or for mentoring new nurses. Higher salaries are often offered for having a BSN or MSN, or for obtaining certification in the field.

    Show Me Nursing Programs

    Sign-on bonuses may be available depending on the demand for nurses. In hospital work settings, such as perioperative areas, or oncology-surgical floors, nurses are eligible for overtime pay. 

    Be sure to look at the big picture when you consider a compensation package. Also consider continuing education or tuition reimbursement, health insurance coverage, and the number of paid days off. Travel nursing can boost salary for adventurous nurses with flexibility in location and lifestyle. 

    Many employers offer additional compensation for achieving certification in your nursing specialty. Oncology nursing offers a range of certifications to choose from, depending on your interests and level of practice. More information about these certifications is included in the answer to question 4: How Do I Become an Oncology Nurse? 

    According to the BLS, in May of 2018, the highest paying states for nursing were as follows:

    • California: $106,950
    • Hawaii: $98,080
    • Disctict of Columbia: $92,350
    • Massachusetts: $92,140
    • Oregon: $91,080

    In the same year, the BLS ranked the highest mean annual salaries for nurses, and the top 10 were in California. The top three were as follows:

    • Salinas, CA: $131,710
    • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA: $128,990
    • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $128,610

    Advanced practice nurses command higher salaries than registered nurses, and this holds true for nurse practitioners who specialize in oncology. The (Bureau of Labor Statistics) reports that in 2019, the median annual income for nurse practitioners was $109,820, with the lower 10% of NPs earning $81,410 or less and the upper 10% of NPs earning $152,160 or more, though conditions vary by area. 

    As with any employment situation, oncology NPs should consider the comprehensive package when evaluating any job offer, such as local cost of living and total benefits package (health and dental insurance, retirement benefits, educational benefits, and others). Nurse practitioners who wish to set up a private practice will need to evaluate the local market, obtain professional advice from their accountant and legal professionals, and create a solid business plan.

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2016 the highest paying states for nurse practitioners were:

    • California: $138,660
    • Washington: $126,920
    • Hawaii: $124,000
    • New Jersey: $123,810
    • Minnesota: $122,850

    Advanced practice salaries are affected by the same factors that shape RN salaries nationwide.

    Show Me Nursing Programs

    Part ThreeWhat Is The Career Outlook For Oncology Nurses?

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that nursing employment will grow at a rate of 12 percent through 2028 – much faster than the average for all jobs. There is a shortage of nurses, with baby boomer nurses nearing retirement and the growing health demands of our aging population.  

    To discover opportunities in oncology nursing visit our Job Board.

    In its report, Cancer Facts and Figures 2017, the American Cancer Society estimates that in 2017, over 1.6 million people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer, which excludes noninvasive and several other cancers. The disease is the second leading cause of death next to heart disease, and about 1650 people die from it every day (a total of about 600,920 people each year). 

    Cancer affects many body systems and all age, racial, and cultural groups. As the risk for many cancers increases with age, the demand for oncology nurses will likely increase in areas such as screening and prevention, health status monitoring, symptom management, direct nursing care, and patient/family/caregiver education. 

    Part FourHow Do I Become An Oncology Nurse?

    To become an oncology nurse you must first complete an entry-level nursing program. Medical-surgical nursing is a foundational course offered in nursing programs and provides an overview of care for many diseases and procedures, including cancer and its treatment. 

    To become a registered nurse you must:

    • Graduate from a two- year program for an associate’s degree in nursing, a three-year program for a diploma in nursing (usually hospital-based), or a four-year college or university program leading to a bachelor’s degree in nursing
    • Take the RN licensing exam after graduation, also known as the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination). The NCLEX is a nationwide examination for the licensing of nurses in the United States and Canada

    Once you pass this exam, you may apply for your first nursing job

    If you wish to pursue an advanced practice role in oncology nursing, the path is typically to choose a patient population as your focus, with a subspecialty in oncology. For example, some MSN programs in adult or gerontology nursing offer the oncology nurse practitioner subspecialty. 

    There are many options for obtaining basic nursing and post-graduate nursing education. A good place to start your search is the U.S. News and World Report annual listings of Best Grad Schools

    In 2017, the top-ranked Master’s degree programs in nursing were:

    1. Duke University, Durham, N.C.
    2. Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD
    3. University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
    4. Emory University, Atlanta, GA
    5. Ohio State University, Columbus, OH

    Check the website to find out more about these programs, as well as the top-ranked DNP and online nursing degree programs. 

    Certification in Oncology Nursing

    Certification also helps nurses demonstrate their knowledge in oncology. The (Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation) offers six different certifications. Certification in the field boosts your confidence, keeps your knowledge up to date, helps you provide the best possible patient care, is an advantage in the competition for jobs, and can enhance your annual salary. 

    The following certifications are available, depending on your interests and experience:

    • Oncology Certified Nurse (ONC®)
    • Certified Pediatric Hematology Oncology Nurse (CPHON®)
    • Certified Breast Care Nurse (CBCN®)
    • Blood and Marrow Transplant Certified Nurse (BMTCN®)
    • Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner (AOCNP®)
    • Advanced Oncology Certified Clinical Nurse Specialist (AOCNS®)

    *Require a master’s degree in nursing. See 2017 Oncology Nursing Certification Test Candidate Handbook to review available pathways to certification.

    The ONCC provides a handy online tool to help you calculate if you have enough oncology nursing experience to sit for a certification exam. You can also download content outlines for specific exams and take one cost-free sample test to help you prepare. 

    You can also download the Test Candidate Handbook, review certification requirements for each exam, and learn how to best prepare on exam day. Another online tool from ONCC helps you find a testing center near you, and year-round testing makes it easy to choose a time that’s compatible with your schedule.

    Show Me Nursing Programs

    Part FiveWhat Does An Oncology Nurse Do?

    Oncology nurses care for individuals, families, and communities, and the role has expanded to include many aspects of care: 

    • Cancer education and prevention
    • Screening
    • Nurse navigation
    • Nursing management
    • Research
    • Direct patient care

    Oncology nurses work in many healthcare settings: hospitals, cancer centers, clinics, physician offices, home care agencies (including palliative and hospice care), hospice centers, and extended care facilities. 

    In addition to variety in work locations, there are many areas of oncology in which to focus. These include:

    • Hematology
    • Bone marrow transplantation
    • Immunotherapy
    • Breast Oncology
    • Gynecologic oncology
    • Genetic counseling
    • Radiation oncology
    • Surgical oncology
    • Chemotherapy/infusion

    In many work settings, oncology nurses will learn safety precautions regarding caring for patients undergoing procedures and treatments where there is potential exposure to radiation and toxic substances, including chemotherapy. 

    Part SixWhat Are The Continuing Education Requirements For Oncology Nurses?

    Clinical practice and continuing education requirements for renewing a nursing license, certification, and advanced practice certification vary by state and credentialing agency. Check with your state board and professional organization for the rules on keeping your RN license and certification up to date. 

    You can also visit our CE Guide for details.

    Show Me Nursing Programs

    Part SevenWhere can I learn more about oncology nursing?

    Learn more about oncology nursing by searching the web and talking with nurses currently working in the field. Tap into social media, visit your local nursing school to chat with an advisor, and visit the websites of professional organizations for oncology nursing. Some of these organizations include:

    • Oncology Nursing Society
    • International Society of Nurses in Cancer Care
    • Society of Gynecologic Nurse Oncologists
    • Hospice and Palliative Nurses Association
    • Association of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology Nurses
    • National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners
    • Academy of Oncology Nurse and Patient Navigators

    Part EightWhere Can I Rind The Best Oncology Nurse Jobs?

    Many sources can get you started in your search for oncology nursing positions. First, check the “Careers” pages of websites for hospitals and agencies that interest you. Many online resources are available for job searches, including nursing social media sites, career sites, and dedicated nursing career sites such as our job board

    You can also check for opportunities with comprehensive cancer centers, so named by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and members of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network. These organizations have a strong commitment to advancing cancer science and treatment as well as to providing leading-edge patient care. 

    Oncology nursing is a rewarding field, with challenges on many levels: ever-changing knowledge and technology requirements in a continually evolving area of medicine, and having to face emotionally charged situations as part of one’s daily work. The oncology nurse has the opportunity to grow both professionally and personally, forming deep and trusting relationships with patients and families over time.

    While self-care and maintaining personal/professional life balance are critical for all nurses, it is especially important for the oncology nurse to regularly practice self-care, incorporating activities that bring physical, emotional, and spiritual renewal. Oncology nurses make significant contributions to caring for the patients they serve, the healthcare system, and society as a whole.

    Find Nursing Programs

    Email Signup


    Find a job, learn, connect and laugh.

    Try us out.

    Join our newsletter